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A book to die for

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Have you ever seen a coffin go by?
If you did, you’re the next to die.
They wrap you up in a bloody sheet
Throw you down ‘bout six feet deep.
The bugs crawl in
The bugs crawl out
The bugs play peeky boo on your snout
Your head falls off
Your tummy turns green

Stuff comes out like whipping cream
You spread it on a piece of bread
And that’s what you eat when you are dead!

Halloween is the perfect time for a childhood chant about the horrors of death, a topic few of us find comfortable. The thoughts of flesh turning green, insects burrowing deeply inside, the indignities that our physical being goes through after our spirit has fled – we turn from those, yet spend billions on horror movies and Halloween costumes, slowing to see a bad wreck, sending shows like Forensic Files, CSI and others high in the Nielsen ratings. It is a ghoulish fascination that makes us cover our eyes with our hands – but make sure to open our fingers so we can still see what’s happening.

The science of death – especially time of death – threads through all those fascinations, asking and trying to answer important questions: What qualifies as death – brain death? Cessation of body functions? How long has this person been dead? What killed him, was she left in this position, did she die before she was dumped? The answers are not as set as you may think, as Jessica Snyder Sachs details in her riveting 2001 book, Corpse – Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death.

The book opens with a horrible multiple murder, and the question of who did it. The subsequent trial, a battle of medical experts, sets up the premise of the book: The science of determining time of death is advanced, but not infallible. The first chapter deals with the history of forensic pathology – the official name of the science of death – starting with descriptions from the ancient Greeks and Egyptians of two “body clocks” we still use today. Sachs defines them: rigor mortis, or postmortem stiffening, and algor mortis, body cooling. But the knowledge of the ancients didn’t stop there – the first known forensic handbook was written in 1247 China by Hsi Yuan Chi Lu. Sachs handles a tremendous range of science and time with a deft hand, moving quickly through the history with enough detail to set the stage for the advances of modern science without bogging down the reader. And that is a hallmark of this book – precision in detail coupled with a conversational tone that draws a reader in.

The rest of the book will enthrall anyone who’s ever curled up with a Kay Scarpetta novel by Patricia Cornwell, or watched old reruns of Quincy. Sachs explores the value of lividity vs body temperature as a means of determining time of death. She introduces Bill Bass, the University of Tennessee anthropologist who started and runs an outdoor death research facility known colloquially as The Body Farm, after a Scarpetta novel of the same name – bodies donated to the school are placed in different positions on the scrap of land, and researchers record how being burned or placed in a car or covered with brush affects their decomposition. She covers the activities of a cadre of death researchers including entomologists, who toss out pig carcasses and monitor the insect activity on them as they rot. Her language is always accessible, no mean feat given the scientific nature of her topic, and her imagery is compelling, as this excerpt (pg. 176) shows:

…as the tiny first-instar larvae of blow flies and flesh flies mature into chunkier second and third instars, as they settle down to the serious work of devouring a human corpse, they can turn into something else entirely. They can swarm. The resulting activity becomes not so much that of individual maggots, but that of an all-consuming pack. The teeming mass churns and roils within the cadaver, with thousands of maggots diving for food, then rolling to the surface for air and plunging down again. The maggot mass becomes an ecosystem unto itself. It becomes the source of the ghoulish steam that has risen from cold battlefields since the beginning of man’s inhumanity to man. The resulting heat – whether from the friction of their roiling movements or the combined chemical spark of ten thousand tiny, flesh-filled guts – can sustain larval growth even in subfreezing weather.”

The book is full of such scenes which, coupled with the personality sketches of the main characters in modern forensics, makes what could be a dry scientific tome interesting and – dare I say – lively. And those of us schooled on television shows and mystery novels have much to learn. Determining time of death is far from an exact science, and the scientists exploring it find their conclusions challenged at every turn. Yes, the victim had a hamburger and French fries for dinner – they’re right there! In his stomach! – but was it from yesterday, or the day before? Placement of the body, time of the year, cause of death, surrounding environment – all can confuse a straightforward rendering based on digestion. So what about insect infestation? Surely that would be less susceptible – but was the body tucked inside a freezer for a time before being dumped where the maggots could do their grisly work? Did a frost descend that night, was the body treated with chemicals? Each time scientists find a definitive method, it doesn’t take long for its cutting edge to blur with exceptions – and Sachs meticulously chronicles each permutation.

This book is not for the faint of stomach, but if science or mysteries, medicine or history consistently draw your interest, then Corpse is a book to die for.

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About Susanna Cornett

  • Eric Olsen

    ewww, gross

  • In a similar vein… autopsy report blog: gruesome storeis of a medical examiner intern. this stuff is fo real. very very icky.

  • jadester

    there was some documentary on terretrial tv here in england awhile back about forensic science in it’s current state. They really are developing some amazing techniques for telling all kinds of stuff. It’s icky, yes, but if itmeans they can track someone’s killer even years or decades after their death, then credit to them. Also the people who work in forensic science must mostly have stomachs of steel, or something

  • Faces of Death in book form? Sort of sounds that way. When my wife and I were in Vegas the last time we watched and commented on a show at the MGM that is coming out about autopsies via the Discovery channel. It takes stones to be a medical examiner!